Justices: The police can arrest DUI suspects in homes with no warrant
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Police may enter Californians’ homes without warrants to arrest those suspected of driving under the influence, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case testing the scope of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The 6-1 decision follows similar rulings in about a dozen other states. A dissenting justice said the majority handed authorities a “free pass” to unlawfully enter private homes and arrest people without warrants.
Under the Fourth Amendment, authorities are prohibited from entering a home and making an arrest without a warrant unless so-called “exigent” circumstances are present. Those include “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon, imminent destruction of evidence and the risk of danger to the police or other persons inside or outside of a house, among others.
In this case, Justice Marvin Baxter wrote that the loss of evidence at issue was obtaining a measurement of the suspect’s blood-alcohol level. Baxter added that a contrary ruling would allow “the corruption of evidence that occurs when the suspect takes advantage of any delay to ingest more alcohol – or to claim to have done so – or when the suspect evades police capture until he or she is no longer intoxicated.”
Baxter and the majority was cautious in saying the decision would not give police carte blanche powers.
“In holding that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry here, we need not decide, and do not hold, that the police may enter a home without a warrant to effect an arrest of a DUI suspect in every case,” Baxter wrote.
In dissent, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said the majority was fooling itself. There is “always” the possibility that a suspect might destroy evidence, especially in drug and bookmaking cases in which officers routinely obtain warrants to search and make arrests, she said.
The case concerned the 2003 Santa Barbara arrest of Daniel Thompson, whom a neighbor suspected was driving drunk and notified authorities. They found a parked car matching the description the neighbor provided and went to the front door of the adjoining residence during a summer evening.
The door was open and a woman said the car’s driver was asleep. Moments later, Thompson walked by the officers and they entered the house and arrested him. The neighbor confirmed it was the person she suspected of driving intoxicated and throwing an empty vodka bottle out the car door.
Thompson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.21, almost three times the legal limit for driving. He was convicted and handed a three-year suspended sentence. He appealed.
A state court of appeal tossed the conviction, saying Thompson’s constitutional rights were violated. The Supreme Court reversed, saying the lower court misapplied search-and-seizure precedent.
Santa Barbara County prosecutor Gerald McC. Franklin said the decision means there is no “absolute bar into entering a house without a warrant for the purpose of arresting somebody for driving under the influence of alcohol.”
Thompson’s attorney, Richard B. Lennon of Los Angeles, was not immediately available for comment.